Singing It Pretty

How the Phelps brothers turned South Norfolk into a musical hotbed that is still celebrated with an annual summer festival

The Phelps Brothers

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The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is hardly the place you’d think of finding a trio of singing South Norfolk country cowboys. But among the recent additions to the Cleveland music museum’s collection is the original recording console that the Phelps brothers—Norman, Willie and Earl—used in order to capture a slew of area rockabilly artists in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, right here in Hampton Roads.

“It had been sitting for years in my dad’s garage, and when he passed away it sat in our garage,” says Bobbie Beard, the daughter of Willie Phelps. “I was pleased that anyone wanted it.”

It’s one more reminder of how, starting in the late ’40’s, the Phelps Brothers transformed sleepy South Norfolk—now Chesapeake—into a musical hotbed.

Listen to the Phelps Brothers:

As country and western performers, Norman, Willie and Earl Phelps appeared daily on local radio stations with their Tidewater Hoedown program and hosted a weekly TV show called Dixie Caravan. At the same time, they owned a music venue that advertised the East Coast’s largest dance floor and ran the area’s first stand-alone recording studio, both housed on a ranch overlooking the Elizabeth River that they called Fernwood Farms.

The brothers made history here. “We would love to see a museum set up, and there are several people who have talked about it,” Bobbie Beard says. She and her husband, the Virginia Sports Hall-of-Fame former NFL linebacker (and  Oscan Smith High legend) Ed Beard, throw an annual Phelps Brothers Music Festival in honor of the boys’ achievements; Bobbie’s even put together a book, Sing It Pretty Willie, that recounts the family history. “We try to keep their memory alive,” she says. “At the music festival, we have people who come out and say, ‘I never knew ... ’”Annual Phelps Brothers Festival

This 15th installment of PhelpsFest is slated for June 9 in Lakeside Park. Its been selected to be one of the official events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Chesapeake, a nice 10-gallon hat tip to the Phelps’ achievements as musical trailblazers in what was once South Norfolk.

And this is history you can hear. “My daddy saved everything,” Bobbie Beard laughs. “Willie, unlike the other two brothers, was a packrat,” echoes husband Ed. “He saved just about every tape that they made down there at Fernwood Farms, including Patsy Cline ... ”

Yes, among the many surviving recordings that the Phelps Brothers made in their Fernwood Farms studio, of themselves and other performers, there is a 1959 session with the late country legend that has gone largely unheard—four stark and intimate performances, peppered with between-song banter where Patsy is heard dealing with a sexist accompanist. It reveals, as Ed Beard says, “a strong lady who didn’t take crap.”

With the assistance of the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, the Beards are in the process of digitizing and releasing the incredible trove of material. There are also rare radio broadcasts from the brothers that showcase their uncanny “blood harmony” and folksy show biz style. “It’s a big part of Virginia’s musical heritage, and it had to be preserved,” says Roddy Moore, the director of the Blue Ridge Institute and the man who excavated the Fernwood Farms console from the Beards’ garage. “It’s very rare that they kept all of these recordings. Most people thought there was no value and threw them away when musical styles changed.”